Smarter, Better, Faster by Charles Duhigg

Today I’m reviewing the book Smarter Better Faster – The Transformative Power of Real Productivity by Charles Duhigg. When I started reading this book, I thought it would be about how to accomplish more as an individual. After all, the author opens the book with a story about someone he wants to meet who seems to accomplish an extraordinary amount in the same 24 hours as everyone else. Plus the title reads as if it’s going to share with you the secrets to productivity that you can take away into your work and personal life to work smarter, better, and faster. But the book is really divided into two sections:

  • The entire book focuses on building the productivity of teams, and helping teams work smarter
  • Only the appendix, sixteen pages long, gives tips you personally can use in your life

Note – The link to the book is an affiliate link. If you buy the book, I’ll receive a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks for supporting the site!

Although I found both sections interesting I had been hoping the author would be focusing on what we can do as individuals, not as teams, and was slightly disappointed that there was almost nothing on that topic until the Appendix. Even when the topic itself could be helpful to an individual the examples were all around work teams. I actually wish the author had started with what’s in the Appendix and expanded on it through the book. It reads almost as two separate books, and the sixteen pages just doesn’t do the topic justice. That’s not to say it’s a bad book-I very much enjoyed reading it and picked up some tips-just that you should know what to expect if you pick it up.

You don’t give secrets of being productive until the Appendix!


So in this review I’ll summarize the Appendix first and move onto the rest of the book second.

On Personal Productivity (from the Appendix)

Topic Advice
Generating Motivation Make a choice that puts you in control
Figure out how a task is connected to something you care about
Goal Setting Set a stretch goal to strive for, and determine what subgoals you need to meet that goal
Make sure your goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Timebound) to help you form a concrete plan to meet them
Staying Focused Envision what you want to happen, and the potential obstacles you’ll encounter.
Determine ahead of time what you’ll do to overcome those obstacles so you won’t let them get in the way of your goal
Decision Making Envision multiple futures as the result of your decision, and estimate the likelihood of each one
Make your decision based on the probability of each of those futures
Team Effectivness Manage the how of team interactions, not the who of the people on the team
Think about the messages your choices, actions, and words say about you and how the team interacts
Managing Others Productively Lean and agile tequniques work smarter and better when they have decision making authority and believe their colleagues are committed to their success
Push decisions down to those people closest to the problem to take advantage of their expertise
People need to know that their suggestions won’t be ignored and mistakes won’t be held against them to be their most productive
Encouraging Innovation Combine old ideas in new ways
Be sensitive to your own experiences and be an observer in your own life
Recognize that stress doesn’t mean things are falling apart
Remember that the relief from a creative breakthrough can blind you to alternatives that you should be looking at
Absorbing Data Data for the sake of data is useless-producing a report is no good if no one uses it
Force yourself to take action on the information you’re given-do something with the data
Write a note, run a test, graph data on paper, explain it to a friend

There, now you have all the personal productivity tips from the book. On to the rest of the book! Side note- I took only four pages of notes on the first 268 pages and two pages on the last 16. That tells you how much useful information I found.

On Team and Work Productivity

  • Deliberately working with your team to create an internal locus of control (you can control what happens to you) vs. an external locus of control (woe is me, bad things are happening and I have no control over them!) leads to higher self-motivation and social maturity, as well as a longer lifespan
  • Group norms plan a critical role in the emotional experience of teams
  • To be productive teams needs to feel a sense of psychological safety-that the group is a safe place for taking risks
  • Teams are considered good when they (1) equally distribute conversations so everyone has a chance to speak and (2) when they have a high average social sensitivity
  • How teams work together is more important than who is on the team
  • Teams need to believe their work is important
    • Personally meaningful
    • Clear goals and defined roles
    • Can depend on each other
    • Model right behaviors- not interrupting, summarizing, admitting what they don’t know, letting everyone speak at least one, encouraging frustrations
  • Cognitive tunneling is when you go from inattention to panicked attention, and reactive thinking is when you automatically go to an action you know. When you combine these your crisis reactions can make the problem worse
  • Creating mental models – stories you tell yourself about how the world works – can make you more sensitive to small details and better at reacting automatically in the right way instead of the wrong way
    • To do a better job paying attention to what matters, tell yourself stories. Narrate life as it happens, and get into a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next
  • Companies have found that setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound) goals is useless if they’re not an important goal
    • Pairing a stretch goal with SMART thinking can help you do the improbable. But your stretch goal should not be impossible
    • Break your stretch goal into subgoals and set a specific plan to meet each one. Note, similar advice was given in the book Grit that I reviewed last week
  • Commitment culture is the most productive and best culture for success. This is a culture where everyone is personally committed to the work and the mission. Interestingly, a “star” culture filled with A-players shines the brightest (think Google) but also fails the most often
  • You can’t just receive or send information and expect things to change. You need to interact with the data, roll around in it, use it to experiment. Simply providing a report does nothing without doing something with it. This sounds simple, but how many of us have developed/used/seen reports or data at work that no one acts on?

I hope recapping the key points of this book was helpful and interesting. Overall I did enjoy reading it, because it was filled with anecdotes and stories illustrating these concepts. However, I do wish the book was better organized and spent a bit less time with the stories and more time helping you put the concepts in place in your everyday life. It also would have been more helpful to split this into two separate books: one focused on personal productivity in work and life, and a second one focused on team culture and working together.

Have you read anything interesting lately? What should I read next? Let me know in the comments!



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.